I haven’t been posting lately, but I have been busy writing throughout the summer. I have very much appreciated the comments I got on SMART Practice (my last post) both online and off-line, and I’ve spent my blogging-hiatus time in continuing to develop my thinking on the model.
So here’s a more complete article on SMART Practice. It is my hope that the model provides solid advice on how to balance what we call “scholarly practice” (a.k.a. evidence-based practice) and business-orientation. The longer article I have in the works documents the research on scholarly practice and the literature on having a business mindset in HRD (human resource development), but I’m only posting the recommendations for practice here.
I will be very interested in hearing what you think of the more detailed material. Are the recommendations bold enough and challenging enough to be interesting? What did I leave out that you think is critically important to a model like this? This is a work-in-progress, and I want to be able to share it with my students and work colleagues later this year.
Fair Warning – you know I already write long posts, and this one is truly article-length. So grab a cup of coffee first. 🙂
The SMART Practice Model
Let’s be plain – we want a seat at the table. Whether we are HRD leaders or front-line practitioners of an HRD practice area, we want to be able to do more than execute orders – we want to apply our expertise to make a positive difference in the outcome.
As HRD practitioners, we firmly believe that we have a unique perspective to contribute to the conversations around how the organizations we serve can succeed, and how employees at all levels can best be enabled to be part of that success. We have expertise that is needed at the strategic level and at the execution level. Of course, wanting a seat at the table isn’t enough. We earn that seat by developing that expertise and then being smart about how and where we apply it.
SMART Practice earns us the right to engage human resource development tools and tactics in a strategic way. SMART practice is Scholarly, Macro, Aligned, Realistic, and Tested as described below.
To strive for scholarly practice is to ensure that we are offering expertise rather than fads. As professionals, we ground our work in a specific body of knowledge and in a repertoire of validated practices. They say that professional accomplishments and breakthroughs are often achieved by “standing on the shoulders of giants” – by applying and expanding on the work of great thinkers and researchers who have provided solid foundations.
Our field has developed a rich array of theories that describe and explain many aspects of learning, performance, change, and organizational success. Being scholarly means we seek out other thinkers and listen to the ways they explain the world. We read research and case studies and interpret their implications for our specific approaches. We will have more confidence in our recommendations if they are born from theory and research in our field, and we will be better able to articulate our reasoning and to suggest tweaks or alternatives if original recommendations prove unworkable.
Being scholarly also requires that we translate our frameworks and practices into language that our clients can relate to, just as good lawyers or doctors might do in a professional situation that requires their deep expertise. To be effective, we avoid overwhelming our partners with academic jargon and lists of citations, reserving those details for conversations with peers and those most interested in learning more.
Gaining and maintaining that scholarly background requires commitment. A solid place to start is with a graduate degree in our field – that gives us a structured introduction to the body of knowledge and to standard practices. In this rapidly changing world, however, that accomplishment will not carry us for long. We need to remain connected to the fresh research in our field by reading research journals, attending academic conferences, developing contacts with relevant researchers, and deliberately searching for up-to-date research and theory related to our pressing problems.
Scholarly practice in action
Here are the imperatives for scholarly practice:
> Develop and apply key guidelines for your practice based on theory and research.
Work with colleagues to summarize exactly what you believe about how the world works in your arena of professional practice. As you work your projects, check yourself against these guidelines to ensure you are practicing in alignment with your key beliefs. (It’s amazing how often we stray from these when excited about a cool idea or pressed by circumstances.) Keep a collection of favorite models that you can reference when thinking about issues.
> Use specific theory and research to frame the approach you take to your key initiatives.
When your business planning activities or day-to-day radar provides indication that a specific type of intervention is needed or a simmering issue will be raised to your list of initiatives, start studying it from an academic point of view. Look first for literature reviews or edited books that collate articles on the subject. Search academic databases or practitioner research forums for relevant, recent research and case studies. Scan practitioner databases for practice trends and look into the evidence that these practices might be useful in your situation. Ask for this background from the project leaders and vendors who are making recommendations for solutions. Then – most importantly – apply your in-depth understanding of related theory and research to frame your recommendations.
> Actively engage with the academic community to keep your knowledge fresh.
Find a way to be linked into current theory and research in the arenas that you practice in most often. Tune into critiques in this arena as well; listen for those who are cautioning about current theory and critiquing the research. Exchange ideas with peers about your specialty areas and interests. Keep an eye out for new journal articles and publications that focus in these arenas. Identify who is doing current research in these arenas and plan how to stay up-to-date with their latest thinking (e.g. blogs, conference presentations, draft papers, personal correspondence, etc.). Better still, partner with researchers to advance our thinking in these arenas; that way, you will really be on the cutting edge.
SMART practice can never be tunnel-visioned. To be SMART, we must practice from a macro view of the world. The best practitioners incorporate strategies for consistently checking out the broader landscape.
One macro view allows us to take in our company’s or client’s business environment. To be effective in our consulting role, we need to develop an understanding of the competitive landscape and learn to monitor the environmental factors that will impact our organization’s business outlook.
A second macro view shows us the picture of what’s happening across our own profession. We look for trends, new practices, and peer concerns and ask ourselves if these are things that we should be examining or influencing in our own environments. We also use our theoretical and research mindset to evaluate the basis and staying power of trends and practices. We pay special attention to the longer term views, looking for changes and innovations that we should have on our own radar screens on our company’s or client’s behalf.
A last macro view is internal but still sweeping. Our overall effectiveness is impacted by the degree to which we are aware of and able to account for organizationally driven goals, initiatives, and changes. We often add value by pointing out problematic overlaps and interdependencies as well as by noticing opportunities.
Macro practice might be conceived as a day-to-day sensing practice. It’s about keeping our senses tuned for shifts in the winds and storms brewing as well as for the good weather that may allow for experimentation and for rapid acceleration of current strategies.
Macro practice in action
Imperatives for macro practice:
> Regularly conduct environmental scans to monitor business news and trends.
Read industry reports and journals, as well as competitive analyses. Set up RSS feeds for industry news. Take advantage of internal opportunities such as sales conferences and annual reports to learn more. Exchange news with colleagues who share your interests.
> Routinely read professional journals and internet sources for trends and new approaches.
Identify a list of up to 10 professional journals in your field or in closely related areas of practice, and make a point to review them for articles and research studies of interest. Regularly search for trend reports. Identify thought leaders who blog or write regular articles (or who tweet professionally) and make a point to follow them. Engage in a professional discussion group. Apply scholarly criteria to differentiate well-grounded ideas and fads.
> Monitor the pulse of the organization.
Develop mutually beneficial relationships with other professionals in HR and in key business areas who may be outside of your day-to-day contacts, and keep each other informed of initiatives and business indicators. Identify and take advantage of routine sources of information to learn about initiatives and business goals (dashboards, internal communications, divisional meetings).
A frequent source of frustration in organizations is the discovery that projects are either working at cross-purposes or duplicating efforts – both of which can be avoided if we pay special attention to alignment. It is often important to establish a clear line of sight between HRD initiatives and the achievement of core business goals or employee’s personal development goals.
SMART practice is aligned when we take a systems view of how organizations and individuals get things done. rom an organizational point of view, we need to understand how various HR and corporate practices and programs can support one another, and work to ensure that they share common goals. Our efforts can be amplified exponentially by alignment of forces toward the same ends. By the same token, efforts can be tripped up by dividing the organization’s attention or – worse – inadvertently attempting to achieve opposing goals simultaneously.
Individuals are more productive when the demands for their attention are focused in the same general direction. Having too many foci can feel choppy and can drag out progress towards goals so that it feels like no progress at all. Aligning the varied programs and initiatives provides synergy that can create its own energy.
Aligned practice in action
These are our imperatives for aligned practice:
> Apply the HRD/HRM models that align multiple practices and approaches.
Explore organizational design, organizational learning, performance technology, and other system models that represent the alignment and interaction of a variety of practices. Identify or adapt a model that best describes how the forces work in your organization, and use that model to guide your thinking on what to align and how to ensure that alignment. Conduct a risk assessment to look for barriers and supports and ensure that barriers to learning and performance are removed or mitigated.
> Collaborate with other leaders to align forces in the desired direction.
Reach out to your colleagues to suggest parallel initiatives that insure the success of overall goals. Co-sponsor or co-create multifaceted projects that address key business challenges or initiatives. Use tools and techniques from other practice areas to support your approach. Identify those initiatives and projects that impact your efforts or that will potentially be impacted by what you may recommend. Initiate discussions that allow you to account for these interactions in your recommendations.
> Align with driving goals already in place.
Ensure that your initiatives support key business goals or align with employees’ development goals. Piggy-back off the momentum already being generated by these goals and show how your HRD initiative supports their achievement.
Those who cringe at the thought of being scholarly will likely applaud the advice to be realistic. We have to customize approaches and adopt theories in ways that are workable for the contexts, opportunities, and problems that we face in organizations. Practices need to be adapted to circumstances.
In evaluating the potential of particular approaches that have been successful in other organizations, we need to explore whether the circumstances that made the approach work in the cited organization are present in our own. If not, we may need to mitigate for that difference. There may also be peculiarities in our own organizations that warrant adjustments in approach. Adopting practices from other organizations is seldom a matter of creating an exact copy.
Even when adjustments aren’t required due to circumstances, we often can’t apply practices in textbook fashion. Our organizations sometimes rightly value speed over elegance, and are sometimes willing to compromise effectiveness for cost and time savings. (80% effective and ready this week may be better than 100% effective and ready next month.) It’s our job to ensure that decision makers understand the compromises being made and risks they expose.
In order to be effective at making adjustments for the sake of a more realistic, less resource-intensive or better priced solution, it is critical that we ourselves understand how our approaches work so that we don’t unbalance their theoretical structure completely. Like playing the game Jenga, we have to know which pieces can be removed without making the whole tower fall down. We have to know how to shore up weak points created by necessary restructuring.
Realistic practice in action
These imperatives for realistic practice will help us stay grounded:
> Identify and protect the “key ingredients” of the models you are implementing.
Study practices with an eye towards identifying what really makes them work. Take special care to examine the culture of the organizations that have garnered positive impact from the approaches, and explore the similarities and differences with your own. Get a handle on the variables that matter and consider how to mitigate risks associated with necessary adjustments.
> Routinely review to identify what works and doesn’t (and why) in your organization.
Make a study of knowing the characteristics and quirks of your own organization in terms of the things that drive success and the issues that are associated with stumbles or failures.
> Enlist support for your initiatives from influential people at all levels.
Identify the key decision makers and influencers, and the people who know your organization really well. Involve these folks in discussions that shape your proposals and give them previews of recommendations to line up support.
No matter how scholarly or evidence-based your planned approaches, it’s important to test them in your own environment. We often make enough adjustments on a “proven” practice that it’s possible we’ve compromised its effectiveness. Every organization has its own quirks which may impact how an approach plays out. In our rapidly changing world, it’s also likely that we’ll actually be inventing a practice for our particular situation.
For these reasons, SMART practitioners develop skill in pilot testing our approaches and monitoring outcomes during and after implementation. While we may avoid complicated control study approaches to evaluating our efforts, we devise rigorous formative and summative plans that monitor what’s working and what isn’t and allow us to catch unintended consequences as early as possible.
Tested Practice // In Action
Here are the imperatives to ensure your practices are well tested:
> Demand evidence that an approach will work before a full deployment.
Ask vendors and employees for the evidence that a particular solution is likely to achieve desired outcomes. Pay careful attention to the particular factors that made the approach successful elsewhere, and the ways that the approach is being customized for your organization. Pilot test the approach to ensure that expected outcomes are achieved.
> Plan a formative evaluation to examine results and make course corrections.
Sanity-check your recommendations with others who can help to imagine possible outcomes and improve the approach. Identify and monitor in-progress indicators of success and failure. Deploy in stages if possible so that adjustments are easier to make. Prepare partners for the possibility of mid-course corrections.
> Monitor the organization for expected and unexpected outcomes and impacts.
Conduct ongoing evaluation to ensure the practice is achieving desired results. Identify areas at risk and monitor activities and measures that would indicate the approach is going wrong.
SMART Practice in Action
Embracing and enacting the SMART imperatives described above will help to ensure your effectiveness in the practice of HRD. SMART Practice calls on you to actively apply your academic knowledge and your experience-based know-how. SMART practitioners embody both professional expertise and business savvy, and in so doing, they command attention when they join a table of business leaders. You won’t just be “at the table,” you can be actively contributing to the success of your organization.